By Paul Koch –
We’ve all heard that cliché, “If you really love someone, let them go.” It is the foundation for most of epic love stories. It is the image of the distant admirer who plays the long game instead of seeking immediate gratification. The thought goes, that if it is real love, it will endure. It will happen without clinging too tight or restraining it to keep it close. There is a certain freedom that is inherit in love. In fact, this is one of the things that I enjoy the most about performing a wedding ceremony. The speaking of the vows, “Will you love honor, and keep him in sickness and in health and, forsaking all others, remain united to her alone, so long as you both shall live? Then say: I will.” And no one can make her say it. She must speak the words. In the speaking of the words, in true freedom, love takes physical form as the two become one flesh.
I guess, what I’m getting at is that while we can live in fear and try to control and produce the correct behavior through threats, it will always pale in compassion to the strength of one living in freedom. A bride who is coerced into saying she will marry a bridegroom is nothing compared to the power of a vow of love made freely and willingly. It is this distinction, a distinction between a life lived in fear and a life lived in freedom, that lies at the heart of our reading from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24. After all, this text is full of exhortations regarding the Christian life. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” We have to ask ourselves, what do we need to explore here together? Is this a commanding threat or an encouraging proclamation? Is it marked by fear or freedom?
When we hear a text like this, we often use these exhortations by St. Paul as markers for a faithful life, for proper discipleship. So, for instance, disciples are those who are found rejoicing always. How many churches take this word and simply run with it? The Christian life is to be one of blessing and joy and happiness. #blessed and all that! Where are the laments? Where are the heartaches? Where are the cries that go out to God, demanding to know where He is and why He is silent and why is He taking so long to answer? For many, those cries of anger and outrage and disappointment are nowhere to be found in the fellowship of God’s people. After all, we are to be rejoicing always. So somewhere along the way the assurance of our salvation, the confidence of eternal life is tied to the blessings of this life, to the joy we feel in our hearts. But what happens when you don’t feel joy in your heart? What then? Where then is your hope?
And the same goes for praying without ceasing and giving thanks in all circumstances. After all, this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. And so, there are strategies for living a life of ceaseless prayer and for always giving thanks, always looking for the silver lining in any and every circumstance. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that these are bad things. They are most certainly noble things to pursue and would probably benefit anyone’s life. But if we take the next step and make these pursuits either how we will secure or even how we will prove our salvation, we are in for a world of hurt and disappointment. For let me dispel the myth right now. The Christian life isn’t going to be one of ease and joy and happiness. There will be times when you will not want to pray, and times when no matter how hard you try you will not find the ability to give thanks. Sometimes things are too hard, sometimes they hurt too much, sometimes we are weak and frail and on the verge of falling into the darkness of despair.
And in such times these words of exhortation may be the last thing we want to hear. Their calls to live such a way is not a comfort but a burden that only adds to our guilt and shame. Sure, perhaps we could give thanks, but it would be a shallow thing. We might rejoice, at least on the outside but inside we would be a wreck. We could even muster up a prayer or two I think, but they would come grudgingly. For you see, we have no shortage of examples of what the Christian life ought to look like. You know what you are supposed to do, you know what you are supposed to avoid. The problem isn’t your knowledge of such things, rather it’s the ability to actually see them through. And so, when we hear these exhortations we are tempted to hear another list of things we must but cannot faithfully do.
But perhaps these words are not words of fear and control but words of freedom. They are not the list of things that prove your faith but promises of what a life of faith is free to be. For if salvation is already secured for you, if it is given freely to you through the life, death and resurrection of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, why then these words take on a different light. And indeed, that is exactly what has happened. Your salvation rests secure and sure in Christ alone which means that these exhortations then become exhortations of love. They are not so much a list of demands upon your life but a call to live boldly as the children of God.
It is a bold life to rejoice, to pray and give thanks. It is a life that looks beyond the tears and struggles of the day, it is a life that confesses something greater than our existence in this passing age. It isn’t a life that pretends to be happy all the time, or a life that looks glorious and glamourous. It isn’t about being healthy, wealthy and wise. But there is a radical sort of confidence that even in the midst of the tears there is not despair even in the darkness of day there is still the promised light of Christ. As St. Paul himself said just a chapter earlier, “even though we mourn, we do not mourn as those who have no hope.”
See, I think it is just such a bold life that Paul is speaking of when he says,
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every evil.”
This is a description of a dynamic life of faith, where the Spirit continues to do his work. Where you are engaged in the prophecies of the Word of the God, where everything is being tested and weighed and examined. This isn’t a tightly constructed checklist of proved actions for faithfulness. No, this is your life, an organic living reality. And it can be lived with boldness where you embrace what is good and reject what is evil. Where you will presumably make mistakes and stumble along the way. But it is also a life where you will be engaged with your brothers and sisters around you. And together we will boldly live as His saints in this age praying together, “Come Lord Jesus.”
And why can we live so boldly? What is the reason for such a life of freedom? Well, because He is faithful. See, even if you are not faithful, even if you fail to rejoice and pray and give thanks, even if you stumble in your discernment of what is good and what is evil, your God is still faithful. Your God is faithful to His promises. Your God promised that all the sins of the world were punished in his only begotten Son. Your God declared that Christ alone is your way, your truth and your life. He promised that in Him you are free: free from guilt and condemnation, free to live as the children He has called you to be.
He has promised all this to you and He is faithful. So, you are free to live boldly. “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of your Lord Jesus Christ.”